In many ways languages are the key to understanding South African politics and culture. For example the fact that there is no majority language means that everyone is constantly reminded that they are part of a very diverse country. Contrast this with the “English first” attitude of many Americans. We have little tolerance for immigrants to our country who don’t quickly master English. There is a cultural assimilation that is implicit in this expectation. We think of ourselves as a diverse and tolerant country, but sometimes that just means that people from other cultures are welcome to come, learn English, and “act like Americans.” In South Africa everyone is a minority.
Yesterday I walked into a store and was greeted by the clerk in Setswana (the predominant language in the township), then Afrikaans (most whites in the nearby area speak Afrikaans), and then finally we settled into English. In a gas station I heard the Tswana speaking attendant and a Xhosa speaking driver switch into Zulu. This kind of linguistic dance is very typical as strangers search for a common language. Most people here speak 3-6 languages, so eventually something works. As a pretty much one-language guy I am somewhat of an anomaly in this country. Everyone is politely surprised.
A big piece of the anti-apartheid movement was the right to be instructed in one's mother tongue. Which is interesting, because that is a right that is expressly denied to Spanish speaking students in the U.S., even in communities where Spanish is the predominant language. In an increasingly connected world I wonder if there is not a critical polyglot* component of democracy that we have overlooked.
*Polyglot - knowing or using several languages.